In the fantasy of wealthy woke environmentalists, the world has recognized that it is on the brink of an existential climate crisis that can only be avoided by rapid elimination of the use of fossil fuels, and the transformation of the world energy economy to be based upon “renewables” like the wind and sun. The generation of electricity will be “decarbonized” by some time in the 2030s, and the world will reach “net zero” carbon emissions by around 2050.
In the real world, anyone with eyes can see that this is not happening. The countries with the large majority of world population (China, India, the remainder of Asia, and Africa) mouth a few platitudes to appease the foolish Western elites, even as they continue to build hundreds of new coal and other fossil fuel facilities. Even the U.S. federal government, under left-wing Democrat control, has had its ambitious “Green New Deal” plans stalled in Congress. Worldwide, fossil fuel usage continues on a steady upward trajectory, pretty much as if the whole decarbonization obsession didn’t exist.
But then there is that handful of very wealthy, small population jurisdictions that have convinced themselves that they can save the planet by eliminating their own fossil fuel use and substituting wind and solar power, even as the rest of the world laughs at them behind their back. Four jurisdictions stand out from the rest, two of them European countries and the other two U.S. states: Germany, the UK, California, and New York. In the aggregate, these four places have population of about 200 million, or about 2.5% or world population. Each of the four has announced draconian targets for net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, with even more stringent interim targets for eliminating carbon emissions from things like electricity generation and home heating.
All these places, despite their wealth and seeming sophistication, are embarking on their ambitious plans without ever having conducted any kind of detailed engineering study of how their new proposed energy systems will work or how much they will cost. Sure, a wind/solar electric grid can function with 100% natural gas backup, if you’re willing to have the ratepayers foot the bill for two overlapping and redundant generation systems when you could have had just one. But “net zero” emissions means no more fossil fuel backup. What’s the plan to keep the grid operating 24/7 when the coal and natural gas are gone?
As these jurisdictions ramp up their wind and solar generation, and gradually eliminate the coal and natural gas, sooner or later one or another of them is highly likely to hit a “wall” — that is, a situation where the electricity system stops functioning, or the price goes through the roof, or both, forcing a drastic alteration or even abandonment of the whole scheme. But which jurisdiction will hit it first, and how will the “wall” emerge?
It’s time for Manhattan Contrarian readers to start placing their bets on this issue. To kick things off, here are a few thoughts from me:
California. I have written several posts highly critical of California’s pie-in-the-sky green energy plans, which include a 2045 “zero carbon” target. For example see here and here. However, California does have a deep secret to help it stave off the possibility of hitting the renewable energy wall: it imports a very high percentage of its power from neighboring states. Some of the imports are fossil fuel based (coal and natural gas from Arizona and Nevada), and some are reliable non-fossil fuel based sources (nuclear from Arizona and hydro from Oregon and Washington).
Here are charts from the California Energy Commission of “total system electric generation” for the state for 2018 and 2020. In 2018 California imported about 32% of its electricity (91,000 GWH out of 285,000 GWH), and in 2020 about 30% (82,000 GWH out of 273,000 GWH). According to data from the EIA, California imports far more electricity from other states than does any other state (although there are a few states that import more on a percentage basis). The ability to import large amounts of electricity from neighboring states means that California has a high degree of insurance against its own energy folly. As long as Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have some electricity to sell, blackouts can be staved off even though California’s wind and solar generators may be completely quiet. You may say that this is cheating in the game of “zero emissions” electricity, which it is, but don’t count on California’s politicians to level with the voters.
New York. New York’s energy system transformation has been defined by something called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act), passed in 2019. This state website provides a summary of the goals to which this Climate Act has supposedly committed us. The main targets:
- 85% Reduction in GHG Emissions by 2050
- 100% Zero-emission Electricity by 2040
- 70% Renewable Energy by 2030
- 9,000 MW of Offshore Wind by 2035
- 3,000 MW of Energy Storage by 2030
- 6,000 MW of Solar by 2025
Here in New York City, the City Council just this week passed a bill banning natural gas hookups for buildings under seven stories starting in 2024, and for larger buildings starting in 2027. Mayor de Blasio, heading into his last week in office, is expected to sign the bill.
But is there any reality to any of this? My prediction is that, rather than our hitting some kind of wall of a failing energy system or sudden price spikes, these ridiculous targets will just be abandoned and forgotten as they get closer and it becomes obvious that they cannot be achieved. The prototype was a matter involving the natural gas utility in Long Island, National Grid, in 2019. National Grid was running out of natural gas capacity for new customers, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens (parts of New York City that are on Long Island and served by National Grid). National Grid wanted to build a pipeline under New York Harbor to bring in the gas, but Governor Cuomo blocked it on fake environmental grounds (supposedly, threats to water quality). When the existing pipelines hit capacity, National Grid began refusing new natural gas hookups. Within a few weeks, some 3000 people had been refused, and the political blowback began. Facing pressure from actual voters, Cuomo did not relent on the pipeline, but instead threatened to pull NG’s license unless it figured out some other way to bring in the gas. NG began to bring in the gas by truck (much more expensive and dangerous than the pipeline), and as far as I know that is what it continues to do. Here is a New York Times account with more details.
My strong bet is that this scenario repeats itself in 2024 when the City Council’s supposed natural gas ban kicks in. Right now the public is only dimly aware of the coming ban, and paying no attention. But natural gas is hugely superior to electricity for home heat, particularly an area like this where winter temperatures regularly go into the 20s and below, a range at which electric heat pumps basically don’t work at all. People building and renovating homes are acutely aware of this difference, and will push back forcefully when told that they can’t have gas.
Similarly, the goals of the Climate Act for enormous numbers of wind turbines and solar arrays are completely unrealistic, and nobody has even started building any meaningful number of them yet. Moreover, the amount of storage proposed is not even stated in relevant units (should be MWH instead of MW), and storage to last the months that would be needed has not even been invented. These targets are so ridiculous that, I predict, we will never even start very far down the road before they are either dropped or just ignored. Sure, we will spend a few tens of billions first, and everybody’s energy bills will go up substantially, but not to a degree that it will be recognized as a crisis.
Germany and UK. So I’m putting my money on one or the other of Germany or the UK to be the first to hit some kind of wall.
- Compared to California, they don’t have any good Plan B when the new wind/solar system doesn’t work. Both have banned fracking for natural gas within their own borders, as have most of their near European neighbors. That leaves Russia as the principal backup supplier, and let’s say that the Russkies are somewhat less reliable than Nevada and Arizona.
- Compared to New York, Germany and the UK have so far actually taken seriously the task of building wind turbines and solar arrays. Germany has gotten its percent of electricity generation from wind and solar up to around 50% for some periods of time (although it fell back to 43% for the first three quarters of 2021 due to lack of wind). Germany’s new coalition government has grand plans to further ramp of the building of wind turbines particularly, while continuing to phase out both nuclear and all fossil fuels, with only Russia to catch them when they fall. In the UK. PM Boris Johnson has become completely obsessed with his “net zero” ambitions, even as low wind has put pressure on limited natural gas supplies and caused prices to spike dramatically.
A prolonged period of unfavorable weather (calm and overcast) could cause a serious energy crunch to hit one or both or Germany or the UK as soon as this winter.